Fidel Castro had one of the better-known beards of the 20th century. But the Cuban leader’s facial hair implied more than a preference for the style: It was also a tribute to his revolution. As an American newspaper noted in January 1959, shortly after Castro’s rebels seized power, these men had no choice but to grow their beards when fighting a guerilla war from the wilderness. Cuban President Fulgencio Batista’s army referred to them as “barbudos,” meaning “bearded ones,” and the beard itself was enough to get you shot.
Apart from being a badge of defiance, the beard gave Castro some practical advantages besides saving him the time and expense of shaving. “In order for a spy to infiltrate us, he had to start preparing months ahead — he’d have had to have a six months’ growth of beard, you see,” he said. By keeping his bushy whiskers, Castro maintained a connection to his roguish mythos and the scruff of the proletariat.
With today’s U.S. conservatives, though, a beard achieves something entirely different. With few exceptions, a beard always manages to seem sleazy, baffling or outright uncanny — so much so that the Bad Political Beard has become something of a meme:
What happened? How might we reconcile the Republican craze for face fuzz with “Beard Theorem” — the joking conceit, unjustly deleted from Wikipedia, that the size of a beard “has a direct correlation to the radicality of a person’s socialist views,” with Marx himself rocking a massive shrub?
No doubt the cycles of fashion play a part in this unlikely phenomenon. In a 2014 op-ed for the New York Times, history professor Stephen Mihm explained that while the Founding Fathers kept their chins bare, and beards were a rebuke of bourgeois capitalism in Marx’s day, the “rugged individualists” who founded corporate empires in the 19th century flaunted extravagant beards, as do the financial CEOs of the 21st. These little renaissances, Mihm argued, had much to do with a temporary sense that conservatism is fully in power and not threatened by beardy labor or left-wing movements — the kind of attitude that prevailed once the European uprisings of 1848 were quelled, and when the Cold War finally came to an end.
It’s a clever theory, but I’d say it’s at odds with what we’re seeing now: a Republican party with a steadily eroding grip on power (and its identity), routinely panicking at the insurgent power and sweeping policy proposals of socialist-leaning Democrats. The Green New Deal and wealth redistribution will be hot topics in the 2020 primaries. If anything, this would be a moment for the GOP to close ranks as straitlaced, smooth-jawed and fastidious bores who use “personal responsibility” as a catch-all reason why we can’t afford to give people health care. For god’s sake, Jeremy Corbyn has a beard!
Paul Ryan, the patient zero of contemporary Republican beards, unveiled his stubble at the end of 2015, shortly before he announced that he would not be running for president the following year. The beard itself, which attracted ridicule and only lasted a month, read as a measure of defeat — not unlike the sad one Al Gore grew after losing the 2000 election — and a harbinger of Ryan’s retirement from Congress: Just as he lacked the spine to stand up to Trump, he lacked the conviction to see his facial hair through. What might have telegraphed a grizzled masculinity was instead a sign of weakness.
Sen. Ted Cruz, who barely clung to power when facing a formidable election challenger in Democrat Beto O’Rourke, stopped shaving in the weeks that followed his narrow victory. This, too, struck the public as a failed reassertion of virility from a man who was lucky to be scraping by in the world. Unlike Ryan, however, Cruz has stuck to his guns and cultivated fuller growth — these days, he could be taken for a creepy magician. Occasionally, he tries to draw the line from his beard to patriarchal authority, as when he dubiously claimed that someone said it gave him “a Talmudic & Rabbinic look & presence.” That kind of reaching, combined with “a bad combination of over and under-grooming,” per Esquire’s Ben Boskovich, ensures our continued disgust.
(In both-sides fairness, Beto’s post-campaign goatee is mildly embarrassing as well.)
Perhaps no conservative beard is as mind-bendingly unappealing as the combined force of the Trump boys, Donald Jr. and Eric, both of whom appear to be spraying a beard on their ghoulish mugs each morning.
The Trump brothers are into the “extremely online” contingent of the president’s rabid base, with all the dumb memes and toxic thinking that entails, and I’m confident that the beards are intended as expression of alpha male status — just like all those fishing and safari photos.How many of us first grew out our patchy, pathetic chinstuff as young men in an attempt to finally be taken seriously? Nobody’s fooled, of course; odds are they were wounded by the cracks about their nubby chins and thought this the most convenient way to deflect that critique. Meanwhile, the MAGA troll army delights in Photoshopping robustly bearded versions of the president — yet the plausibility of this is unclear.
So, toward a unified theory of the Bad Political Beard: What is it about this that makes your skin crawl? I’ll hazard that it’s not just the shape or the fullness of the fuzz.
No, we reject these beards not simply because they’re hideous, patchy and poorly managed — which they assuredly are — but because they’re inauthentic. We recognize them as awkward rhetorical moves, and we know, instinctually, that the beard belongs to the working man and his champions. (Tellingly, Castro and Marx also had wilder, frizzier, untamed tresses, not the hard, misplaced cutoff lines of Cruz’s beard, or the distractingly variable dimensions of Sebastian Gorka’s mouth muff.)
These tools are up against a long cultural memory of bearded progressivism, and their vaguely pubic efforts are no match. Their beards puncture the very confidence they mean to project, sulky and impotent protests of fragile men who see a rising tide of women in government.
Then again, I might be flipping cause and effect. What if one’s politics doesn’t lead to a crappy beard? What if the inability to grow a beard is a contributing factor in the evolution of a reactionary shithead? It sure would explain a lot — especially college Republicans.